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Energetic And Ambitious, 'Watchmen' Taps Into A Slew Of Today's Anxieties


This is FRESH AIR. The new HBO series "Watchmen," which premieres this Sunday, offers a new take on an acclaimed 1986 comic book series. Set in an alternative version of today's America, it stars Regina King as the masked heroine dealing with murder, terrorism and our national past. Our critic-at-large John Powers says that even if you normally avoid stories based on comic books, you may find that this one pulls you in.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: When the comic book series "Watchmen" came out in the mid-1980s, it quickly became a landmark. Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, it was less a superhero comic than a dazzling metacomic about the whole idea of superheroes. Hopscotching around like a French new wave film, "Watchmen" conjured an alternate 1980s to explore ideas of vigilante morality, political paranoia, looming apocalypse and the fantasy of larger-than-life heroes who would come to the rescue. It felt like a game changer - the transcendent end to the traditional superhero story.

Of course we all know what actually happened. Our culture has been flooded by superhero stories, nearly all of them as naive as the ones Moore deconstructed. Far from changing things, "Watchmen" was itself turned into a failed movie blockbuster that treated the comic with a reverent fidelity that Hollywood never even showed the Bible.

Now "Watchmen" is coming to television in a new HBO series created by Damon Lindelof, who did "Lost" and "The Leftovers." To be honest, I began watching in the same spirit that one might open a pack of chicken whose expiration date has passed. But I'm pleased to report I was wrong. Rather than rehash the comic, Lindelof does what Noah Hawley did in his TV adaptation of the film "Fargo." He preserves the original's mood, themes and tricky structure but uses them to tell an engrossing, totally new story.

Set in an alternative 2019 America, the show centers on Tulsa, Okla., site of an actual 1921 racial massacre whose brutality echoes through the whole series. As the story begins, Tulsa has become a frontline in a guerrilla war between the white supremacist terror group the Seventh Kavalry and the police, who now wear masks. One of these is Detective Angela Abar, a terrific Regina King, a happily married mother who pretends to run a bakery but works undercover in the guise of a superhero.

Here, Angela talks to her daughter's class about what's known as the White Night, when Seventh Kavalry killers invaded policemen's homes.


REGINA KING: (As Angela Abar) I was one of the cops who got attacked on the White Night. And that was before police officers were allowed to wear masks, so the bad guys, they knew who I was, and they knew where I lived. And they came to my house, and they shot me right here. And the doctors, they had to pull apart my insides to find the bullet and get it out because they didn't want it to kill...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Ahem.

KING: (As Angela Abar) Anyway, I figured making cakes and cookies was better than getting shot, so I quit the police force and opened up a bakery.

POWERS: When another cop gets murdered, Angela and her police chief boss, played by Don Johnson, spearhead an investigation into the Seventh Kavalry with help from Tim Blake Nelson's character Looking Glass, a psychically scarred officer whose mask is a mirror. But their task is hard, for they inhabit a world in which squids rain from the sky, conspiracy theories run wild and America is still traumatized by a terror attack that killed millions.

And that's not the only reason for paranoia. There's also a mysterious Vietnamese trillionairess played by Hong Chau, a slippery U.S. senator played by James Wolk and a magical 100-year-old man in a wheelchair played by Louis Gossett Jr. Even as the smart talking FBI agent Laurie Blake pushes her way into the Tulsa murder case - she's played with scene-stealing snap by Jean Smart - a demonic genius played by Jeremy Irons is off hatching plots.

While the series doesn't approach the thrillingly subversive inventiveness of the comic, which was laced with Moore's unruly genius, Lindelof does have a genuine talent for inventing alternate worlds bursting with alluring enigmas. He clearly had fun cooking up this imaginary America where there's no internet or mobile phones but there are racism detectors. And by the way, Robert Redford has been president for decades. Befitting Lindelof's mixtape approach to reality, the show is fueled by a soundtrack that includes everything from hip-hop to "Clair De Lune" to "Some Enchanted Evening."

Like the original "Watchmen," this TV version is clearly aimed at its political moment. Preserving Moore's sense that superheroes are actually wounded souls, it taps into a slew of today's ideas and anxieties, be it the lingering shadow of 9/11, the power of fake news, the rise of Asian money or the eruption of a racism that never really went away. It's one measure of the pop culture distance between the Reagan-era "Watchmen" and today's model that the show's hero is an African American woman.

Based on the episodes I've seen, it's too early to tell whether Lindelof can make the show's enigmas pay off in a satisfying way, but so far, I'm ready to give him the chance. His "Watchmen" isn't just energetic and ambitious, but more grown-up than the Marvel and DC juggernauts. It reminds us that nothing is riskier than waiting for some hero, superpowered or otherwise, to come in and save us.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new HBO series "Watchmen." It begins Sunday night. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with Elton John or Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ronan Farrow, whose new book is about his investigation into the Harvey Weinstein story and who tried to prevent Farrow from reporting it, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross.


John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.